Chevy’s Better Beetle

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The Chevy Corvair has something of a bad reputation – among those who don’t know much about it, anyhow. Arguably GM’s most daring (and technologically advanced) car of the 1960s, it fell victim to a combination of bad press – and bad timing.011

As a six-cylinder car in an era of big V-8s, it got lost in the horsepower shuffle of the original muscle car era. And as the target of uber ambulance chaser Ralph Nader, it wound up being tarred with an unfair reputation for being an evil-handling, “unsafe at any speed” car.

But the real story of the Corvair is the story of of America’s first all-unibody (integral body/frame), aluminum-engined/air-cooled mass production car – a machine that earned industry-wide praise when it appeared in late 1959 as a 1960 model, sold in big numbers for awhile. but which was fated to retire just nine years later, in 1969 – its passing almost unnoticed.

The original 1960 model was conceived as an upmarket alternative to the popular but primitive (even then) VW Beetle and other small economy cars of the time. Despite some design similarities (rear-engine/air cooled) it was a much more refined and arguably better-executed car than the Beetle – which by the early ’60s was already pushing 30 years old. It was also remarkably different than anything on the road bearing a Ford or Chrysler badge.

Work on what would eventually become the Corvair began in the latter half of the1950s under the supervision of Chevrolet Chief Engineer Ed Cole. Cole loved airplanes, so it’s not surprising the Corvair’s powerplant would be similar to engines used in light aircraft: an air-cooled flat six, with individual cylinder barrels and a divided crankcase. Nothing like it had ever been considered for a U.S.-branded mass production vehicle  by GM or any other major American automaker.009

Even more unconventional for an American auto was the engine’s location in the rear of the car – “where an engine belongs,” as Corvair ads would later claim. A rear-mounted aluminum transaxle was fitted to the engine (manual three speed or two-speed Powerglide automatic), with drum brakes all around. Power steering was not deemed necessary – because the front end of the car was so light.

Since it was conceived as an economy car, the first-year Corvair’s interior furnishings were basic – and the options list minimal. However, the car was roomy and pleasant -especially the back seats, which were people usable (unlike the VW’s). There was also a good-sized trunk up front and a very effective system of manually operated vents that kept the car comfortable in both warm and cold weather driving.

Since there was no radiator up front, there was no need for a traditional grille; engine cooling was provided by louvers on the rear decklid – and a belt-driven fan with a strange-looking 90-degree pulley system you’d swear couldn’t possibly work – but did. There were two single barrel carburetors – one for each bank of cylinders – fed by a single air cleaner with two “arms” that extended to each carb’s throat. A cable ran from a lever on the transaxle to the front of the car, where it hooked up to the gas pedal. Air was expelled at the rear of the car, where a  warm breeze cascaded out of a trim vent below the rear bumper.

The standard 140 cubic inch flat six originally developed just 80 hp in the standard 500/700-series ‘Vairs – which wasn’t much compared with the V-8s one could buy in more traditional cars. But it was significantly more impressive than the Beetle’s feeble (40-hp) four – and delivered sprightly acceleration in the 2,270-lb. car. It was capable of comfortably maintaining 70 MPH – a speed the Beetle struggled to reach and had trouble maintaining.006

The Corvair’s heater worked, too – another selling point over its German rival.

Introductory year 1960 models bowed in base 500 and slightly spruced up 700 trim lines, in either coupe or sedan bodystyles. Base price was just under $2,000 for the 500 coupe.

A station wagon model would appear in ’61 – the Lakewood – along with the “forward control” Greenbrier van and a Rampside pick-up derivative.

Toward the middle of the 1960 model year, Chevy brought forth a sporty version of the Corvair coupe called the Monza.

The appearance of this model – which featured a higher-horsepower version of the 140 CID flat six (tuned to 95 hp), low-back bucket seats, floor shifter (with four-speed transmission beginning in ’61) and brushed aluminum trim accents – quickly caught on among enthusiast drivers, who called it the “poor man’s Porsche.” More importantly, perhaps – given the times – the Monza helped boost Corvair’s image as something more than just another economy car.012

In ’62, Chevy would raise the stakes even higher by offering a turbocharger (with single carb) as optional equipment for the Monza – which became the Spyder when so equipped. The $317 option boosted the output of the little six to 150 hp and was part of a comprehensive performance package that also included such mandatory options as a 4-speed manual gearbox and heavy-duty brakes with sintered metallic linings – bringing the total price for a ’62 Spyder coupe to $2,600. Buyers also got a gauge package with tachometer, brushed metal trim and more aggressive final drive ratio. Wire wheels and a wood steering wheel were popular dress up options.

1962 was also the year a convertible became available – at a base price of $2,483.

It was the spunky little Monza, more than any other permutation of the Corvair, that assured the little Chevy’s place in history – as well as helped seal its eventual doom. What had been conceived as a basic (but technologically advanced) economy car was fast becoming a sporty car – and being driven accordingly. The problem was that the rear-engined Corvair had a tendency to throttle oversteer if driven too fast into a corner – and would become uncontrollable if the driver made the mistake of lifting off the gas instead of hammering it through the curve. This inherent problem was made worse if the manufacturer’s recommendations for tire pressure (15 psi up front, 26 for the back tires) was not adhered to scrupulously. The same handling quirk was a fact of life for early Porsche (and VW) drivers, too – as these cars used a very similar swing axle suspension design. But in the Corvair, it became an issue as a result of a combination of mass production and inexperienced drivers – neither of which were ever much of a concern for Porsche. (VW drivers, on the other hand, tended to drive conservatively – and besides, there was no performance version of the slow-pokey Beetle – a fact that kept things in check.)016

In a decision GM would come to regret, early (1960-’63) Corvairs were not fitted with a simple $4 per car transverse rear leaf spring – which would have helped to idiot proof the Corvair’s swing-axle design. In 1964 – the same year the flat six was punched out to 164 cubic inches (with power in the base car jumping to 95 hp and 110 in the non-turbo Monza) Chevy belatedly added the single transverse rear leaf to tame the car’s tendency to oversteer when pushed too hard by an inexperienced driver. The fix worked – but it was like trying to back up the Titanic after it hit the iceberg; the damage was already done. And could not be undone.

A series of high-profile wrecks – including one involving comedian Lenny Bruce – and the subsequent agitation of  Nader – laid the foundation for Corvair’s reputation as “defective” – and “dangerous.”

Chevy reacted with a complete revamping of the entire Corvair for 1965 – including a sleek new body that was almost universally applauded for its attractive, clean lines. A new 140-hp Corsa coupe appeared – with turbo power optional and output up to 180, almost twice what the first Corvair mustered.

Bill Mitchell – the GM designer who helped create the ’67 Camaro – was very much involved in the exterior styling of the ’65 Corvair. It was less ornate, less boxy than the original model – and seemed to finally be coming into its own as an American sports car. Under the skin, the ’65 also boasted a totally new suspension – centered around a Corvette-style fully independent rear that should have put to rest any lingering public concern about the car’s handling tendencies.018

Unfortunately, it was not to be.

Despite the gorgeous new body and superb handling conferred by the ‘Vette-based IRS suspension system – Corvair sales began to droop alarmingly, especially after 1966. But it wasn’t primarily due to Ralph Nader’s evil little book.   (Litigation over the car would actually outlast Corvair production, with Congress finally holding hearings on the matter in ’72 – three years after Corvair production ceased in 1969.)

More than anything else, what ultimately killed the Corvair was bad timing. Despite the turbo engine’s jump to 180-hp in ’65 (140 hp in the next-down model – which featured a wild-looking four-carburetor induction system) – it couldn’t compete with the explosion of high horsepower muscle cars that had erupted after the 1964 launch of the Pontiac GTO – or the nuclear afterglow of Ford’s luminously successful Mustang, which also bowed that year. Gas was cheap – and the coming-of-age youth of the 1960s wanted cubic inches and big burnouts – not the Euro-style balanced performance the Corvair was trying to sell.

Meanwhile, the car was being out-priced (and out-optioned) on the lower end by more conventionally designed small economy cars from Ford and Chrysler, including the Falcon, the Dodge Dart and others. GM had invested enormously in the unusual tooling and other things necessary to build the Corvair – none of which was shared with other GM models. It was becoming clear at the company’s Detroit headquarters that the outlay wasn’t going to be recouped. Internal memos later revealed to the public show GM management decided to cut its losses very shortly after the introduction of the all-new ’65s. Changes would be minimal over the next four years – and by the final year, production decreased to a trickle.019

Only 521 convertibles left the factory that final year – down from more than 34,000 back in ’64.

The irony of it is that had the second-generation Corvair been launched just six or seven years later – without the baggage of the first-generation Corvairs, with the sexy new body and Corvette-esque IRS -  and right in the middle of the first OPEC energy crunch – it almost certainly would have been a huge sales success. Nimble, attractive – and great on gas (at least, relative to a V-8 muscle car).

It would have been a no-brainer. And it might have helped GM beat back the devastating onslaught of import compacts from Japan that ate into its market share like Luciano Pavarotti digging into a stromboli.

As it was, GM got burned so badly by the experience – and by Nader’s relentless hair-shirting – that it shied away from producing anything remotely imaginative for many years after the Corvair’s cancellation in 1969. Instead of trying new things, it would produce functionally competent but future beer can fodder like the Chevette and Vega and Nova – leaving it to the Japanese to produce interesting (and fun to drive) small cars.

This is the true legacy of Ralph Nader. Anyone who owned a Corvair (especially the ’64s – and the second generation ’65-’69models) knows the car deserved better.

And could have been so much more.

Throw it in the Woods?

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  30 comments for “Chevy’s Better Beetle

  1. Tinsley Grey Sammons
    February 14, 2013 at 1:32 am

    “And could have been so much more.”

    I have often wondered what the Corvair would be like today if, like the 6-cylinder Porsche from which so much could have been learned, it had continued to evolve.

    tgsam

    • Badger
      February 14, 2013 at 3:20 am

      I don’t know either Tinsley, but the ’86 930 was still tail happy and frankly dangerous to drive as are most all rear engine Porsches. Come of the gas in a turn and you’ll be looking at your own tail lights in a heartbeat. That’s just a fact.

      I barfed in the back of my Aunt’s Corvair when I was six. Boy was she pissed!

      • Tinsley Grey Sammons
        February 14, 2013 at 7:22 pm

        Maybe I’m just a natural but I never sensed a problem with the VW Beetle or the Porsche 911. I never owned a 911 but I drove plenty of them. I also occasionally assisted Hans Mandt with the late Peter Gregg’s* No. 66.

        I hydroplaned one Beetle and rolled another but that was simply a product of foolish driving and no fault of the vehicles.

        tgsam

        *Google: Peter Gregg

      • Tinsley Grey Sammons
        February 15, 2013 at 2:12 pm

        Amazingly, you are still alive.

    • February 14, 2013 at 11:56 am

      As a former owner (those pics are of my ’64 Monza 110) I would say there’s a lot of potential in that flat six. My car’s stock engine in very mild tune was rated 110 hp. Granted, that’s SAE gross. But nonetheless…. with FI instead of those beastly carbs and a performance camshaft/exhaust system, I’d bet you could get 170-200 honest/streetable SAE net hp out of a naturally aspirated Corvair six. 200-plus with a turbo. In a 2,200 lb. car, you’d have a very favorable power-to-weight ratio and excellent performance.

      • Reverend Gonzo
        January 31, 2014 at 11:30 pm

        Well do I remember that car… My dad worked at the Tech Center in Warren from its beginnings until his retirement in the mid-70′s, those guys were capable of some pretty interesting engineering feats. One Saturday afternoon in that era, he showed up in the driveway with a Corvair Monza 4 speed that the wizards in the shop had transplanted a Buick V-6 into… much like the Fiero of later years, they put the radiator in the front and routed all of the lines somehow. Damn thing was a rocket, could smoke the tires effortlessly….

        • eric
          February 1, 2014 at 8:22 am

          Hi Rev,

          Yup!

          There used to be a V-8 conversion kit – mid-mounted, if memory serves.

          Can you imagine that?

  2. skunkbear
    February 14, 2013 at 2:49 am

    Interesting article Eric. I have always been a fan of Beetles and – believe it or not – liked the looks of the Corvair.

    The concept of “The People’s Car” is fascinating.

    Let me throw an idea out to you Eric. I have for many years tinkered with the idea of a true people’s car, by which I mean a car based on a “bolt on, bolt off” concept.

    Each car will come with a computer app that the owner could use to punch in the car’s malfunction and then be given the source of the trouble for which the owner will merely have to remove and replace the defective part using the simple tools that also come with each car. Bad alternator? Remove the four bolts holding the gear driven alternator onto the engine unit, replace with a new alternator and take the bad alternator to the dealer.

    In other words, simplify the repairs. This does not mean eliminating mechanics and body shop men. There will always be a need for someone to actually do the work for those busy professionals and house wives etc. It would only make the necessary repairs uniform and easily understood/doable by the owners.

    It is just an idea – and I fully recognize that I am only an idea guy, definitely not capable of making it actually work. That would be up to the likes of HotRod, if it can indeed be made to work.

    • BrentP
      February 14, 2013 at 3:48 am

      The way I learned the story of OBD2 was that the automakers wanted the codes readable on the dash in some way where the owner could then look up what was wrong in the owners manual or by the light itself. The government demanded the ‘check engine’ light.

      Our wonderful leaders er rulers decided that people would not bring in their cars for minor faults. Thus the government made a one size fits all scare people light.

      I believe your idea is presently illegal to sell in the USA. You would probably need to separate the functions of code reading into a separate product.

      As a side note, mechanically the design would be very expensive.

    • dom
      February 14, 2013 at 3:57 am

      It’s a good idea. I had one similar.. Mine being a generic computer that would be able to accept the software to run any car and be completely tunable. Mine, as yours, would be extremely expensive and probably illegal (as Brent said). Also, remember just because you have a code that says what a sensor is reading that does not necessary mean a particular part is broken. It just means a sensor at a certain location is relaying a certain voltage/amp/resistance/whatever value.

    • February 14, 2013 at 11:41 am

      The basic concept is absolutely viable.

      The Model T is living proof. Arguably, so are cars like the Beetle – and Ford Falcons, Dodge Darts and Chevy Novas. Any of these could be updated fairly easily with the equipment necessary to comply with reasonable emissions control requirements (circa 1987 standards, which gave us cars that were appx. 90-95 percent “clean” at the tailpipe; the current/ongoin emissions jihad goes after fractional reductions of the remaining 3 percent or so of the exhaust stream that’s other than C02 and water vapor). A simple TBI set-up, 02 sensor and ECU would be sufficient upstream. A cat downstream.

      “Safety” equipment, meanwhile, could – and should – be made optional. There is no justification in terms of the commons for mandating air bags, ABS or any of that stuff. Offer it, perhaps. Let those who want it buy it. But keep the cost of the car down by eliminating all “safety” mandates.

      Now you’d have a reliable, efficient (and clean-running) A to B car that could be manufactured and sold for under $12,000. Probably under $10,000 without all the “safety” equipment.

      Imagine being able to buy a brand-new car that got 35 MPG, was very DIY repairable (and cheap to pay someone else to repair if you didn’t want to DIY) and which only cost you about $10,000.

      A fortune could be made for the company – and it would help ease the pressure of car costs that have become onerous for most people.

      • phil
        February 14, 2013 at 2:28 pm

        Im not so confident in this. In my experience, the people who are inclined to do their own work already own a car that is a combination of old and simple that they are comfortable with. Everyone else wants an appliance. Now, sure, there would probably be a shift in some people’s valuation of home work if a simple and modern alternative were there, but I am not confident it would be substantial.

        Not to mention I’ll bet no company in todays litigation climate is going to advertise that people can do their own work. First shade tree related injury and all hell will break loose.

        • February 14, 2013 at 2:35 pm

          Hi Phil,

          There are two issues here, at least as I see it:

          Government (mandates and regulations) has effectively made it impossible to build and sell a “basic” (much less light-weight) car – so we can’t really know whether such a car would sell. We do know, however, that they sold very well in the past. I see no reason why they would not sell well now. Keep in mind that, if anything, people are under more economic strain now than at any time since the Great Depression. A simple, basic car that got you from A to B reliably – and gave you fantastic gas mileage – would probably be very popular in this environment.

          As to the lack of interest in DIY – I see that as a function of the wealth that has to a great extent evaporated. People could previously afford to be cavalier about repair costs – about paying a tech $100/hour to service their vehicle. For the same reasons mentioned above, that’s no longer true. I suspect DIY maintenance would be very popular, if new cars were more DIY-friendly.

          Which, frankly, they ought to be. Electronic ignitions (vs. points)… fuel injection (vs. carbs). The needless complexity could easily be done away with…. if government got out of the way.

          • phil
            February 14, 2013 at 2:49 pm

            I dont disagree with your premise, the only way to be certain is for an entrepreneur to take a risk, and that ability is made impossible due to regulation.

            However, my own estimate is, if you stripped out the regulations that make it cost prohibitive, building a disposable car that could run for 200k miles with no maintenance under $10k is well within reach. And I would bet people will opt for this over a similarly cheap car that can be repaired easily and run forever. I dont think that trend will reverse. Like an old hobart kitchenaid stand mixer vs a new one, the days of needing to regrease and the value of repairing vs replacing is gone.

            Don’t misunderstand me, I’m the guy who owns 70 year old kitchen appliances, a 48 willys, a nash metro, and all sorts of other stuff that will run forever with routine care. But that is driven by my love of machines more than savings. Id be a crappy mechanical engineer if I didn’t love them.

            The story of the 48 Tucker and the conspiracy around it fit well here.

            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1948_Tucker_Sedan

          • phil
            February 14, 2013 at 3:07 pm

            One further addendum. The reason I say a 200k disposable appliance car would be comparable to a more simple model that could be maintained forever is because of material cost. If you design a car to die at 200k, every part can be designed to fail at that criteria. You can use thinner and cheaper materials, you can use welding instead of bolts, ect. A simpler car designed to be maintained forever cant take these cost savings shortcuts.

            Here is as useful a datapoint as you can get for your side of the argument, by the way:

            http://money.cnn.com/2003/07/30/pf/autos/bc.autos.vw.beetle/

            The mexican beetles, produced up until 2003, a car whose costs are as amortized as any car will ever be, and as simple as any car with doors comes, was selling for $6500 new.

            I reckon a disposable modern fiesta stripped to the basics would be on par.

      • Eric_G
        February 14, 2013 at 3:30 pm

        Nice idea for 10 years ago, but with self-drivers on the horizon the trend will be “automobile as a service.” In other words, when you want to go somewhere, you summon a vehicle with your phone (or maybe whistle like Roy Rogers). Just you heading out to work? Super-econobox pulls up to the curb. You and the family heading to the airport? A station wagon with plenty of space for luggage pulls in. Moving? Here comes the panel truck.

        You just pay by the mile and who gives a crap what it looks like or how it performs. With the aging population and kids without income (and massive college debt), it really will be the best way to go (unless it snows… then there’s telecommuting).

        Yes, it will be a sad day for car enthusiasts. But most of us don’t have any use for anything made after 1980 anyway, so as long as we can keep the old classics alive we’re going to be OK.

        • skunkbear
          February 14, 2013 at 9:21 pm

          Eric_G

          “Nice idea for 10 years ago, but with self-drivers on the horizon the trend will be ‘automobile as a service.’”

          Yeah, sadly technology does seem to be heading that way. But given the way things are now going politically I am more afraid of self-driving “cattle cars”.

      • skunkbear
        February 14, 2013 at 9:05 pm

        Eric, you mentioned basic cars like the Chevy Nova. My first car was a ’68 Chevy Nova. My Dad taught me how to fix just about everything on it (I can replace an automatic tranny but cannot fix one – some things are best left to the pros). Great Father and son times together. Maybe something has been taken from us with all of the new whiz-bang things…

        Question: Why do they not make something so important as brake lines out of stainless steel? The little extra cost would be worth it especially here in the rust belt.

        • February 14, 2013 at 11:55 pm

          “Question: Why do they not make something so important as brake lines out of stainless steel? The little extra cost would be worth it especially here in the rust belt.”

          You’ve answered your own question!

          Even if it’s only say $5 per car, that adds up to money when you’re talking 80,000 cars annually….

        • BrentP
          February 15, 2013 at 12:16 am

          Stainless is difficult to form. The soft steels that are used last well over a decade. The cost of forever lines doesn’t pay back.

  3. Eric_G
    February 14, 2013 at 3:34 pm

    Dad bought the first one in town the day it hit the showroom floor (mom claims the dealer didn’t want to part with it). Liked it so much he bought a Monza a few years later. This was all before my time, when my parents were young and hip (OK, they were never young and hip… dad thought it was a technological marvel and liked that it didn’t cost a lot to run).

    I’ve seen quite a few of the later models with the 4 carb intake at car shows over the years. What were they thinking? Mechanical fuel injection existed then, I’m sure it would have been better than that monstrosity.

    • February 14, 2013 at 3:40 pm

      The thing with the four carb set-up was you had to mechanically synch the carbs – and there was a lot of slop in the linkages, which worsened as the cars aged.

      FI was available, but would have added a lot of expense. I’ve often wondered why Chevy didn’t just go with a single four barrel Q-Jet. Probably because the four one barrels looked tough!

      • Tinsley Grey Sammons
        February 14, 2013 at 7:32 pm

        Synching the carbs was a nightmare on the early 911 Porsches. After the throttle shafts had wallowed the casting it was an impossibility.

        The Webers were an improvement over the original Solexes.

        Synching the throttles on the mechanical fuel injection that came later also sucked.

        None of it was profitable for a conscientious commissioned Mechtec back in the late Sixties and early Seventies.

        tgsam

  4. geoih
    February 14, 2013 at 3:53 pm

    You should do an article on the Pontiac OHC. Another car ahead of its time.

  5. jesse bogan
    February 14, 2013 at 8:14 pm

    One of my oldest memories is of going to Chevy Chase Chevy w/ my Ps as they picked up their Roman Red 60 500 4 door. We had it for 6 years or so. In the 80s I had a similar but green 60. The gas heater was FANTASTIC. Heat in 30 seconds or less. Fun car, drove it a lot, even with a small kid and *gasp* no belts in the rear…Only spun it once, right after purchase when I set the tire pressures to 32 PSI all the way around… Then I read the manual. Now I am restoring a 67 coupe. The 110 is rebuilt, just waiting for a hole in the shop schedule to get it in here, and get it going. Great looking car the late coupes are…

    • February 14, 2013 at 8:52 pm

      I wish I hadn’t sold my ’64! I restored the whole car, then – like a moron – let it go. At the time, we were living in a much smaller house, with a much smaller garage (you can see that in the pictures). I could barely walk around in the garage and it was driving me nuts. So I sold the ‘Vair.

      Now I have a big garage and plenty of room.

      But no Corvair!

  6. Curtis
    February 15, 2013 at 2:17 am

    Great Corvair memories come rolling back with this article. My brother had a 64 and someone, I don’t remember who because I was 10 at the time, had done some work on it. Hit a big bump around 9 at night and we started hearing a funny noise. Engine dragging on the street. Knocked on some guys door and borrowed a 2X4, created a lever and we always knew there was a reason dad told us to carry the spare belt. It can also hold the engine in when necessary.
    The plug it in and figure out which module to change is assuming a bit too much. The hardest thing to teach a tech is that under all of the electronic components is a good old fashioned engine. Lots of things going round and round, up and down, etc. They still suck air and put out exhaust. I find alot of techs don’t even have a vacuum gauge any more. Broken vac lines, defective throttle shaft bushings, and the multitude of intake gaskets present today set off all kinds of codes that would have some DIYers spending a fortune changing stuff because the code said it was bad.
    Great concept, but it would need comprehensive manuals or diagnostic trees to go with the system.
    Great site, thanks for it.

  7. February 15, 2013 at 2:38 am

    More than any review you’ve done, I have strong opinions about this one. In early 1964, when I was a Junior in High School, my dad bought me a 1963 Monza Spyder Turbo for my first car. Good looking. That aluminum instrument panel with the tach was awesome. At various HS Reunions, a lot of guys who weren’t into muscle cars come up to tell me how envious they were of my Monza Spyder. The chicks liked it well enough…but nothing special.

    And damn, that thing could corner! We raced at night on the Angeles Crest Highway in the mountains northeast of LA. That car was very hard to pass. Other times, I drove it alone, pushing even harder. Compared to most everything else, the Spyder was not treacherous at all. Rear end never came out faster than I could react. It handled great.

    But damn, in a straight line, that thing was SLOW!! If you say it had 150bhp, and less than 2300lbs, I won’t argue. But on a bhp/lb ratio, it had to be one of the slowest cars ever!

    Although that rear end didn’t seem unsafe, it wore through tires at an amazing rate.

    That engine literally bled oil. I wiped about half a quart off the rear grill/grid every week.

    And, like too many GM cars throughout the 60s through 80s it suffered from all too frequent, untraceable, failures to start. That Chevy left me stranded in some spots that were hard to explain to parents, or official girlfriends….and other spots that were kind of dangerous. My “next car” was an English Ford Cortina GT. And compared to the Corvair, it seemed as reliable as a Toyota.

    Bottom line. The Corvair was a promising concept. It looked good, and handled great. But GM didn’t do all their homework, and cut way too many financial corners. Even by the standards of the day, the Corvair was a Piece of Shit!

    It deserved to die.

    • February 15, 2013 at 10:21 am

      Hi Mike,

      One issue with the Spyder was it had both a turbo and a carburetor. That almost never works well – and didn’t here, as you found out. (Ditto the early carbureted turbo V-6 Buicks and the ’80-’81 Turbo Trans-Am.)

      There was a lot of lag – and yes, the car was pokey in comparison with what was available then. IIRC it took about 10 second to get to 60.

      As I see it, the problem is Chevy had intended the car to be an economy car. But then, for all the reasons detailed in the article, they tried to also make it a sporty car. But they didn’t put a great deal of effort (or money) into improving the engine to be a performance engine. The situation was comparable to the situation vis-a-vis early Porsches – except that Porsche did refine and develop their engine into a legitimate performance engine.

      Mine leaked oil, too. Viton seals fix that. I consider this a teething problem that could have and would have been dealt with by the factory if the car had continued to be developed.

      The handling was very good; I too can vouch for this, having owned one.

      In fact, it handled better than most American cars of its era. It had very quick/precise steering and was much easier to maneuver than the huge dreadnoughts of the Big Three.

      It also had guts enough to maintain highway speeds of 70-plus, which the Beetle could achieve but often had trouble maintaining (as on hills).

      It had a nice, roomy interior – and effective heat – and much better body integrity – than the Beetle.

      Again, I’ve owned both.

      A piece of shit? I think that’s being unfair.

      Some bugs to work out? Certainly.

  8. John Illinois
    February 15, 2013 at 10:32 pm

    Does anyone recall the Mobilgas Economy run? How about the Pure Oil Trials? There was a reason they did that–Gas back in the 60s WAS NOT CHEAP! True, it ran in the 25-30 cent range, and occasionally got down to 19, but wages were not very high, either. I did a study of what I made packing groceries at Kroger in 1960 (50 cents an hour), and what my son made packing groceries at the exact same Kroger in 2002 ($8.50 an hour). That was an increase by a factor of 17.5. 17.5 times 25 cents a gallon results in a corrected price of $4.37 a gallon today.

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